Empty people finding fullness

Jesus begins his ministry by announcing that ‘the Kingdom of God is at hand’. He has come to implement all God has in mind for the world.

His kingdom will be an arena, not just for fixing problems and managing our messiness, but for creating lovers of God who are devoted to his project.

So, Jesus explains what people in this kingdom look like—very much like himself of course—because he is not just the King but the prototype of what a subject is.

This, of course, amounts to a declaration of war. People who don’t already love God will not be interested in his way of life. Even the birth of Jesus is seriously contested. The local man in charge kills hundreds of children in an attempt to head-off any competition for control.

Things haven’t changed much. In many countries, including our own, Jesus is downplayed and his people maligned as harmful. If God is for real, and if Jesus has come to reveal him, the world recognises a rival, meaning that those who believe in him should be cancelled.

We need to know who God congratulates for getting things right. Jesus teaches us a number of ‘beatitudes’ (Matthew 5:2-10). But the word usually translated ‘blessed’ actually means to be congratulated or happy.

First, the people who have chosen well and have a good future are those who are ‘poor in spirit’.

Jesus is not saying it’s good to be depressed. Rather, he commends the person who knows that everything they really need and value in their life is going to have to come from someone else. That’s how poor they are. They feel this deeply—they are poor in spirit

There’s a story in the Old Testament about the Queen of Sheba visiting King Solomon. She sees his wealth. She hears his wisdom. And we are told that there is ‘no more spirit in her’ (1 Kings 10:5). Alongside of him, her wealth and wisdom are nothing.

Jesus does this to all of us. For a while, we think we can run our lives, change some things around us, keep ourselves happy and anticipate a good life. This soon runs thin.

Then, we see Jesus. He is not living for himself but for his Father—God. He doesn’t restlessly accuse us. He understands that our bluster is shallow and that we are really empty. And, he gives himself to us, and we know this. We begin to see that he’s the rich one and we are those in need.

Jesus demonstrates how to live in a world God looks after. He heals many who are sick. He delivers some who have fallen into the hands of evil spirits. He knows what he’s doing. Even better, he knows what God is doing. He’s believable. He’s real.

That’s when we become ‘poor in spirit’. If our life is going to amount to anything, it is going to have to start and finish knowing he’s the one who gets things right. He’s dwarfed us in the way he lives and speaks. But he doesn’t make dwarfs of us. He promises we will inherit God’s kingdom. We’ll be God’s special people—and he will be in charge of everything.

That’s why we are to be congratulated now. The reward is coming. But the congratulation is for now. We’ve chosen well.

Change that goes to the heart of things

When Jesus comes among us, he needs to recalibrate our thinking as to what makes up a good life. Here’s the third of his ‘beatitudes’.

The meek are to be congratulated and they will inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5-6).

We would say the strong and assertive are those who inherit the earth. Jesus knows better. A little later, he says that he himself is meek and lowly in heart (Matthew 11:28-30)—and he is going to inherit the earth.

Meekness is hard to define and harder to have! It has to do with how we relate to others. It’s not just avoiding being pushy. It’s not just being weak. It’s not just checking our impatience. It’s a deeply felt belief that we are here to help others but not to control them.

Remember that Jesus has begun his ministry announcing the kingdom of heaven is near. The question this raises is: who is in charge of everything? Or, who is responsible for saving the earth?

We tend to think our ideas are best, that people should do things our way. But if Jesus is the Saviour of the world, we need to be a step or two behind what he is doing rather than running the show.

This doesn’t make us weak in playing our part in human relationships. If anything, it makes us more sure-footed. Moses demonstrates this. He is ‘very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth’ (Num. 12:3). But he confronts a world leader and frees slaves. His meekness has nothing to do with being a doormat for others tread on. 

However, if we are truly meek, other people can tell the difference. They know they have a place around us. They know they won’t get run over. They may even ask questions.

Remember that when Jesus says he is meek and lowly in heart, he’s inviting weary people to come to him—weary with trying to make something of themselves.

We’ve got good reason to live this way. When Jesus says the meek will inherit the earth, he’s quoting Psalm 37. The Lord will deal with those who are doing wrong. Our part is to trust the Lord, delight in him, be still and patient and refrain from anger (vv. 1-11).

It comes back to knowing that the King is in charge. It’s not our will that’s important, or the will of others. It’s the will of the King that will prevail and obedience to him that will make it happen. Under that, we all have our place and meekness welcomes this.

Gentled by mercy

Gentled by mercy

The people Jesus congratulates are those who show mercy. They are the ones who will receive mercy from God[1]. This teaching is not new. King David has already recognised that God will have mercy on those who show mercy[2].

People who need mercy are in trouble. They may be desperate. They may be the reason for their own problems. But people who show mercy see beyond this and give what they can to help. They have been gentled by mercy and know that God does more than expect everyone to ‘do the right thing’.

Jesus himself often shows mercy to needy people. In this Gospel, two groups of blind men cry out for mercy[3]. A distressed father kneels and ask for mercy for his sick son[4]. A foreign lady cries out persistently and kneels to ask for mercy for her sick daughter[5]. And Jesus helps them all.

He has compassion on the crowds because they are leaderless[6], or sick and hungry[7].

In seeking mercy, some call Jesus ‘Son of David’—Israel’s promised deliverer. They may know the promises God has made to send a Messiah who will act mercifully[8]. So, showing mercy is important for Jesus, and for us who belong in his kingdom.

Our tendency is to expect justice and forget mercy. But while we’re doing this, God is upholding us, being kind to us, generous to us. He’s not asking if we are worthy. He’s just seeing us as needy people and reaching out to help. Jesus doesn’t come into the world to help people who think they are righteous. He comes to help those who are undeserving[9].

God has already shown Israel that he wants them to do what is right, but also, to love mercy[10]. He doesn’t just teach this. He shows it in how he treats them[11]

And, of course, this is what God is doing when Jesus dies for our sins (Romans 3:25). If anyone has had reason to complain, it is Jesus. He is misunderstood, maligned and nailed to a cross. But he endures being the focus for all our hatred of God. And he expresses the mercy of God for us sinners.

He can truly say, ’Father forgive them’. He knows we don’t understand the love of God, don’t know how far our pride has taken us from being warm and real. Not yet, anyway. When he is ‘lifted up’, he will draw us to himself, and to God. And then, the mercy of God will create mercy in us.

If all we want is for things to be ‘right’, we lose our way, and our peace, and God’s mercy. And if we think someone is not worthy of our attention, we’re thinking legally, not mercifully.

Jesus makes an issue of this in a story he tells[12]. A man badly in debt pleads not to be sold as a slave, and promises to find the money. Instead of this, his creditor forgives the whole debt. But then, this forgiven man demands payment of a very small sum from someone else. When the first creditor hears of this, he runs the ungrateful man off to jail.

Jesus tells this story to warn us. If we don’t forgive others as we have been forgiven, we have not understood forgiveness. Effectively, we’ve not been forgiven. The results of being without mercy are severe.

But this story isn’t just a warning. It tells us that mercy doesn’t begin with us. Jesus is among us. He is going to reveal and secure God’s mercy to us[13]. He simply asks us to acknowledge the compassion we’ve received and to share it with others.

On three occasions in this Gospel, Jesus explains to Pharisees that they should offer mercy to the needy rather than parade their performance[14]. Twice, he quotes God’s word. ‘I desire mercy rather than sacrifice’[15].

Perhaps we need mercy from God for our legal mindset. And certainly, all of us need to know that we have not deserved anything we have received. Without Jesus as Lord, we also would be lost and hopeless. We need to know how pitiable we are. This is when we truly say, ‘Have mercy on us, Son of David’.

This is the way that our life becomes beautifully uncomplicated, and attractive—like our Saviour’s. And Jesus says we should be congratulated!

[1] Matthew 5:7

[2] Psalm 18:20-25

[3] 9:27; 20:30-34

[4] 17:15

[5] 15:22

[6] 9:36

[7] 14:14; 15:32

[8] Luke 1:68-72

[9] Matt. 9:13: 12:7

[10] Isa. 1:17; 58:6-10; Hos. 12:6; Mic. 6:8

[11] Isaiah 30:18

[12] Matthew 18:21-35

[13] Luke 1:77-78

[14] 9:13; 23:23

[15] 9:13; 12:7